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Complete Study Guide to Figurative Language

written by: Peter Boysen • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 1/5/2012

If similes, metaphors, hyperbole and other non-literal uses of language leave your head spinning, this study guide can help you. Because figurative language can express meaning on deeper, richer levels than literal text, you will enrich your experience of texts as a reader — and as a student.

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    How to Use This Guide

    For many students, reading and understanding figurative language is like a fish taking to water for the first time. Such children's writers as Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss expose students to the world of comparisons, exaggerations and other rhetorical expressions years before the children actually know that, by reading these works, they gain access to knowledge about more elaborate forms of writing.

    This guide will explore several different figurative language uses, beginning with the two most commonly used forms, the simile and the metaphor, before moving on to hyperbole and several other figurative literary devices.

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    Write Like There's No Tomorrow: The Simile

    The simile is one of the first figurative devices you will come across in your study of literature. Although one of the most common figurative devices, the simile can also be one of the most powerful devices used to compare two unlike objects or ideas. Here's how a simile works: you take two dissimilar objects and compare them to make a point: if you go home from school and can never find your carpet, because of all the clothes and books and papers on the floor, your mother would be right to say that your room looks "like a pigsty." You may not actually feed pigs in your room, but the conditions in your room are filthy — as is a pigsty. The comparison is a valid one. The key element of a simile is the use of the word "like" or "as" in the comparison.

    These articles will help you learn about similes and understand how to interpret them, particularly with regard to their use in poetry.

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    A Simile Without a Tennis Net: The Power of Metaphor

    The metaphor is very closely related to the simile: both take two traditionally unlike objects or ideas and compare their similarities. If you've ever gotten into a very hot car on a very hot day, you might have concluded that the car was simply an "oven." You might not be using the car to cook dinner for your family, but your point, which is that the car has become extremely hot, is a valuable one. Metaphors have been powerful throughout literary history, and you'll need to learn how to read and interpret them to become an accomplished student of literary techniques. These articles will help you with metaphors in poetry and plays.

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    But I'll Die if I Can't Go: Hyperbole

    Hyperbole is the extravagant art of exaggeration for rhetorical purposes. To create a sense of urgency, or the absurd, writers will incorporate exaggeration into their writing. Sometimes it's on a small scale, as a girl believing she won't live through the night if she can't go to the mall with her friends; sometimes it's on the scale of an entire work, as in the Shel Silverstein poem "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout," the little girl who simply would not take the garbage out. These articles will help you look at poems with hyperbole, and a few other devices, and come away with understanding.

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    Other Examples of Figurative Language

    There are several different other devices that are also examples of figurative language. Personification, for example, involves an author giving an object, idea or animal the ability to do things that only people can do. In the world of personification, fortune smiles on some of us — and leaves others of us in the cold. Allusions refer to people, places or events outside the story. For example, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," the "bootleggers" represent an unfamiliar term to modern readers; to people in Fitzgerald's time, though, the shady figures who delivered alcohol during the Prohibition era were a well-known phenomenon.

    Meiosis is another figurative device — it means the opposite of hyperbole, or understatement. You may use this with your parents if you get a 50 on a test by telling them your grade "was all right" or "wasn't that bad." A pun is a joke that makes a play on words; for example, you might say that the Easter present you received was "eggsactly" what you'd wanted. These and other figurative devices will make your own writing richer, and knowing how they work will make reading more enjoyable.


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